Hype doesn't always add up in NFL

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2003

The Miami Dolphins were supposed to go to the Super Bowl because they signed the aging Junior Seau.

The Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to get at least as far as the NFC title game. Kurt Warner and the Rams were supposed to be back in form.

And some people (gulp!) thought New England was going to win the championship for the second time in three years.

Not off the first week of the 2003 season. Maybe not after any week, although things change quickly in the NFL and turnarounds are frequent. Tennessee, for instance, started 1-4 last season, won 10 of the final 11 and made it to the AFC championship game.

But there were some early impressions that could last through the season injuries permitting. Coaches and players think of the first games as season-setters.

Some notes on teams and people:

Bill Belichick.

The New England coach spent the offseason acquiring used parts to fit what appeared to be a Super Bowl run: Ted Washington, Larry Centers, Rodney Harrison, plus a younger free agent, Roosevelt Colvin.

Then they cut safety Lawyer Milloy, a team leader, on the Tuesday before the regular season. It took the heart out of the team, even more so when he signed with Buffalo, whom the Patriots played in Week 1. Final: Buffalo 31, New England nil.

Maybe the Patriots can come back, maybe they can't.

''Sometimes you're thrust into that from your past experiences that you've gone through,'' says Harrison, who spent his first nine seasons in San Diego and is trying to assume a leadership role in New England. ''People look up to you. As an older player, you're naturally a leader.''

The Pats say Milloy's release was for salary cap reasons. No one is saying whether the decision was really Belichick's. Was it owner Bob Kraft or a joint decision involving the owner, coach, money man Andy Wasynczuk or personnel guy Scott Pioli?

Nobody knows, and the league is investigating whether Washington was talking to Carl Poston, Milloy's agent, before he was cut. Poston is not a favorite with many team negotiators.

Andy Reid and the Eagles.

Philadelphia fans are notoriously tough on their teams and expectations are ridiculously high. After two losses in the NFC championship game, nothing less than a Super Bowl trip will do.

So after the Bucs totally stifled the Eagles, the talk radio regulars went after Reid. Never mind he's the one that got them to the top after taking over a team that was 3-13 the year before. Since a 5-11 rookie season, he's 38-18.

The fact is that the Giants were on the Eagles' heels at the end of last year and had a much better offseason. Based on the first week, Philadelphia may not beat out New York in the NFC East.

Don't blame Reid.

Owner Jeff Lurie and president Joe Banner don't like long-term contracts for veterans, so they lost Jeremiah Trotter, Hugh Douglas and Brian Mitchell the last two years. Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Duce Staley could go after this season.

Other than Donovan McNabb, no offensive skill player scares opponents. Some NFL people think Antonio Freeman, just re-signed by Green Bay, was their next-best offensive player last year.

Dave Wannstedt.

He was taking heat in Miami even before the Dolphins were shocked by Houston on opening day.

Wannstedt is a Jimmy Johnson creation. He worked for JJ in college, then at Dallas, and Johnson helped him get his first head coaching job with the Bears. When he was fired by Chicago, Johnson brought him to Miami as associate head coach, and when Johnson quit, he lobbied for Wannstedt as his successor.

This may be a case, like Reid on the winning side, where numbers tell the story.

Wannstedt is 71-74 for his career, 2-3 in the playoffs. The only other coach with more than 100 games and a losing record is Belichick, and he's learned a lot since his early losing seasons in Cleveland. And he's won a Super Bowl.

But this is probably another city where expectations were too high. The Dolphins didn't make the playoffs last season, and signing a 34-year-old linebacker with a recent injury history isn't the way to get over the top.

Mike Martz, Kurt Warner and the Rams.

The Rams were supposed to be back. They still may be. And while Warner was pretty bad against the Giants, he was playing with a concussion for the final 54 minutes.

Look elsewhere for the main woes, like the offensive line. Guard Adam Timmerman, a two-time Pro Bowler, was awful. Kyle Turley, the big offseason acquisition, was beaten regularly by Michael Strahan.

OK, Strahan's one of the best DEs in the league and handled Turley when he was in New Orleans, too. But the only offensive lineman who performed decently for the Rams was Orlando Pace, who showed up just two weeks ago after holding out through training camp.

Martz's play-calling was as questionable as in the Super Bowl loss to New England. Marshall Faulk had only nine carries Martz seems to give up on the running game if it gets stuffed a few times instead of continuing to pound.

Marc Bulger starts this week against the 49ers. If he does well and the Rams beat the 49ers, the QB controversy starts.

Worse, if they lose at home to their main division opponent, at 0-2 after an 0-5 start last season even the players begin to have doubts.

DIRTY DOZEN: The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play.

1. Tampa Bay (1-0). The Bucs re-emphasized that they can repeat.

2. Tennessee (1-0). Gritty resolve in the face of bad officiating.

3. Oakland (0-1). Gritty resolve in the face of bad officiating.

4. New York Giants (1-0). Underappreciated and proved it.

5. Buffalo (1-0). Maybe it was the Milloy factor, but the Bills' defense looks real.

6. San Francisco (1-0). The Niners were pretty impressive even if the Bears are awful.

27. Miami (0-1). Home loss to Houston never should have happened.

28. Dallas (0-1). Tuna can't change things in a week. Or in a year.

29. Cincinnati (0-1). Marvin can't change things in a week. Or in five years?

30. Chicago (0-1). Last year's slide wasn't a fluke

31. Detroit (1-0). Anquan Boldin? Ten catches for 217 yards? They don't play Cardinals again, so 1-15 is still possible.

32. Arizona (0-1) Help!

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